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Raleigh Tavern

  • Established in 1717
  • Raleigh Tavern
  • Named for Sir Walter Raleigh
  • Burgesses met in Apollo Room in 1773
  • Nonimportation agreement drafted
  • Phi Beta Kappa founded in 1776
  • Destroyed by fire in 1859
  • Rebuilt Raleigh Tavern dedicated in 1932

Place for gathering and meeting

Painted in gilt above the mantel of the Raleigh Tavern's Apollo Room is the motto "Hilaritas Sapientiae et Bonae Vitae Proles." It may be translated "Jollity, the offspring of wisdom and good living."

Established about 1717, the Raleigh's namesake was Sir Walter Raleigh, who had attempted the first colonization of Virginia in 1585. His lead bust stood above the door and, during Publick Times in April and October, planters and merchants from all over the colony passed beneath it on the way to the court. Some adjourned to play dice in the gaming room or to feast in the dining room.

Festive balls held here

Often there were balls; colonial Virginians loved to dance. Thomas Jefferson, a love-struck student at the College of William and Mary, attended one with Rebecca Burwell (he called her "Belinda") on October 6, 1763. As he described it in a letter to his friend John Page, young Tom made something of a fool of himself:

"In the most melancholy fit that ever any poor soul was, I sit down to write to you. Last night as merry as agreeable company and dancing with Belinda in the Apollo could make me, I never could have thought the succeeding Sun would have seen me so wretched as I now am. I was prepared to say a great deal. I had dressed up in my own mind such thoughts as occurred to me, in as moving language as I know how, and expected to have performed in a tolerably creditable manner. But, good God! when I had an opportunity of venting them, a few broken sentences, uttered in great disorder, and interrupted with pauses of uncommon length, were the too visible marks of my strange confusion."

Burgesses adjourned to tavern after dissolution of House of Burgesses

There were more serious occasions for resort to the Raleigh. When the House of Burgesses protested the Townshend Acts in 1769 and Governor Botetourt dissolved the chamber for its disrespect, bolder members reconvened at the tavern. There they formed a nonimportation association, agreeing to suspend the purchase of various goods from British merchants. It might have been called a boycott, but the word would not be invented for another 111 years.

Meeting at the suggestion of burgess Richard Henry Lee in a private room at the Raleigh in 1773, a group that included lawmakers Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and Dabney Carr planned the introduction of a resolution to create a standing Committee of Correspondence. The committee participated in the circulation of letters and other communications among the legislatures of the restive colonies – an important step toward Continental unity.

The very next year, on May 27, Governor Dunmore dissolved the House of Burgesses again for objecting to the closing of the Port of Boston after its Tea Party, and 89 burgesses reassembled at the Raleigh to form another nonimportation association. George Mason drafted the association agreement, and George Washington introduced it.

Benson J. Lossing, a 19th-century journalist who visited Williamsburg to gather material for a book, wrote, "The Raleigh Tavern and the Apollo Room are to Virginia, relatively, what Faneuil Hall is to Massachusetts."

Slaves auctioned on tavern steps

The tavern served many interests. Theater tickets were sold at the Raleigh, and merchandise and slaves were auctioned from its steps. Though he usually stayed elsewhere (perhaps sometimes across the street and to the west, where Christiana Campbell kept an inn at the site of today's James Anderson House), Washington often dined at the Raleigh. So did many leading Virginians.

The colony's Council entertained Governor Botetourt with a Raleigh Tavern meal his first night in the city in 1768. Just seven years later, Peyton Randolph's return from Philadelphia and the Continental Congress (of which he had been president) was celebrated at the Raleigh.

Phi Beta Kappa founded at tavern in 1776

On December 5, 1776, a group of College of William and Mary students gathered in the Apollo Room and founded Phi Beta Kappa. In 1779 another band of gentlemen met at the Raleigh and formed the Pulaski Club, a group that still meets and may be the oldest men's social organization in the nation.

Feast honoring Marquis de Lafayette held in 1824

The city's celebration of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 began at the Courthouse and ended at the Raleigh. When the Marquis de Lafayette returned to Williamsburg in 1824 in the course of an American tour, a feast was given in his honor at the Raleigh. Among the guests were Chief Justice John Marshall and John C. Calhoun.

The last notable Raleigh Tavern banquet was in 1858, when former President John Tyler and other College of William and Mary alumni gathered. Someone memorialized the Raleigh in verse the following February:

"Around the simple hearth which blazes yet
The simple planters of Virginia met,
Discussed the news, and cursed in equal terms
The odious Stamp Act and tobacco worms."

On December 16, 1859, a Richmond newspaper reported that the Raleigh was "willfully burnt down" five days earlier. Flames damaged two nearby stores, the account said. In the same paragraph, it noted that damage totaled $15,000 and that "[a]ll parties are partly insured."

Fire destroyed tavern in 1859

Doubtless, sleepy 19th-century Williamsburg did not afford an innkeeper the opportunities for profit enjoyed by the Raleigh's 18th-century owners, including Henry Wetherburn, Alexander Finnie, apothecary surgeon Dr. George Gilmer, former cabinetmaker Anthony Hay, and James Barret Southall. The Wren Building also burned in 1859 and was rebuilt; the Raleigh was not.

Two brick stores stood on Raleigh site in 1926

When the restoration of Williamsburg began in 1926, two modern brick stores stood on the site. Archaeological excavations begun in 1928 by the Williamsburg Holding Company (a forerunner of Colonial Williamsburg) unearthed the foundations and artifacts. Drawings from Lossing's book, A Pictorial Field-Book of the American Revolution, and insurance policy sketches permitted precise reconstruction. 18th-century inventories informed the the tavern's refurnishing.

Restored Raleigh dedicated in 1932

Colonial Williamsburg's first exhibition building, the reconstructed Raleigh was dedicated September 16, 1932, a year to the day after the restored Wren Building opened. A local minister delivered the benediction: "God bless the father, the son, and the Williamsburg Holding Corporation."